I would have words…

Lately I’ve been watching the show ‘Spartacus’ on Netflix. I’m thinking about writing a fantasy book set in Bronze Age-type book series once I finish IDYLL Book 3, and a sword-and-sandals saga seemed somewhat similar to the setting of my story. (Sibilance!)

spartacus batiatusQuestionable research techniques aside, I’ve been enjoying Spartacus. Yes, it’s cheesy at parts, but I think the first season was very well done for what it is—a bloody, lusty soap opera with lots of good twists and over-the-top characters.

To help convey a sense of Old-Old-Worldiness, the ancient Romans talk in a sort of overly formal, faux-Shakespearean phrasing. That’s probably better than having them talk in the original Latin! And the writers have done a good job of using that style to make the simplest lines of dialog sound interested.

For instance, “We need to talk” becomes “I Would Have Words…”

The overwrought language can also seem surprisingly colorful and visceral. As in “You will do as commanded, absent complaint, or see flesh stripped from bone.” Or “There are many words I would use towards your description. ‘Fool’ lives not amongst them.”

The problem for me is that I think that style of speech is slipping into my writing. My characters are speaking a little too formally.

I find my characters saying things like:
“This all that remains.”
“Granted, it was a poor choice.”
“I’m pleased to hear it.”
And granted, my characters are sci-fi cowboys, but still this style is too anachronistic, even for them.

This isn’t the first time that some sort of media I enjoy has seeped into my writing style. I’ve found I can’t read a present-tense book while I’m doing my first draft, or I’ll write whole passages in the wrong verb tense.

How about the writers out there? Are there any writing styles or tropes that unconsciously slip into your writing based on what types of books, shows, or music you’re enjoying in your free time?

The best parts of Wet Hot American Summer

WHAS4Back in 2001, Wet Hot American Summer became one of my all-time favorite comedies. I think it’s the only DVD I ever rented more than once (Remember video stores? The ones other than Blockbuster?). I even listened to the DVDs commentary track, which was pretty hilarious. With all that said, I’m as surprised as anyone that Netflix has brought the movie back for a prequel series, 14 years after it settled into its cult status.

If you’ve never seen the original movie, I say check it out. I’d also suggest you be forewarned, this is one of those bits of art that is fairly divisive. It’s like the cinematic version of a Vampire Weekend or a Velvet Underground album. You’ll either fall in love in the first 10 minutes, or you’ll scratch your head and wonder what all the fuss is about. WHAS_cast

At the very least, you’ll be shocked by the cast breakout stars: Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, as well as a lot of funny faces you’ll recognize: Michael Ian Black, Christopher Meloni, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino… all of them ‘young,’ before their careers took off. I put ‘young’ in quotes because most of them were in their late 20s, playing teenage camp counselors. The movie goes for the typical belly laughs that you might expect from an ‘end-of-summer’ sleepaway camp teen comedy from the 1980s. But the best parts of the movie are more subtle homage or skewering of the sloppy conventions of those movies.

First of all, as mentioned above, all sleepaway camp movies must feature twenty-something actors pretending to be teenagers. The editing, the effects, and direction have to look as shoddy as possible. If you have seen the original movie, then check out some of my favorite moments. Hopefully this will get you fired up for the new series premiere on July 31.

David Hyde Pierce and Janeane Garofalo have their first bit of hilariously awkward dialog. Listen for the canned ‘breaking glass’ sound effect whenever anything flies off screen. The producers use the same sound in the next scene with Christopher Meloni.

Blocking? What is blocking? Blocking is where the director plans positions for actors as they stand or walk—or how they enter or exit a scene—to create the most narrative impact, and to create the least amount of distraction. This is one of the movie’s first bits of ‘absurdist blocking humor.’ What do you do with Zak Orth to get him out of a scene so that Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks can have ‘a moment alone?’ You have him take a long walk off a short pier. WHAS5 25:10
Paul Rudd calls his Journal a ‘Gournal.’ No one corrects him.

Another bit of absurdist blocking humor. Several excited counselors frolic out of Garofalo’s car, to go stand against a cabin wall, Blair Witch style.

Ken Marino drives a van, sings ‘chain of love,’ and then rams a tree for no good reason. WHAS6 39:50
Check out the horrible wig on Joe Lo Truglio’s stunt double as his motorcyle chase is stymied by a single bale of hay in the road. This is made doubly hilarious (or maybe just disturbing) by the fact that the filmmakers seem to be throwing real child actors out of a moving van during several other scenes of the movie.

Zak Orth and A.D. Miles slyly exchange a secret handshake—which is pretty much a regular handshake. Right after that, Michael Ian Black and Bradley Cooper share sweet, sweet man love in their athletic socks.

Who’s the voice of that can? Why it’s H. Jon Benjamin, future star of Archer and Bob’s Burgers!

The movie launches into the obligatory 80s motivational musical montage. And the song (Higher and Higher) is that perfect blend of parody and actually cheesy greatness. Like the part in Boogie Nights where Dirk Diggler sings The Touch, which was also in the BEST Transformer Movie.

Can’t afford a big river rescue scene to rev up the climax of your movie? Just pan in on Joe Lo Truglio mugging for 15 seconds over splashing sound effects. He can wow the viewers with ‘you shoulda seen what I just saw!’ awesomeness. Also, don’t bother to tell the child actors being rescued to bother acting scared.

That’s a few of my favorite scenes in WHAS. Wha’s yours?

Movie gems on Netflix

I used to have a problem with Netflix, back when most of their business involved mailing DVDs. I had this theory that they were punishing their customers who used the service a lot in favor of their customers who barely used the service at all. I wasn’t the only one who thought there was something shady going on.

But that was a long time ago, and now those red Netflix envelopes seem as charmingly antiquated as the video stores they helped push out of business. All of those old conspiracies have been forgiven, and Netflix’s streaming service is easily my favorite source of ‘moving picture’ entertainment.

These days, my biggest problem with Netflix is that they seem to be weirdly tight-lipped about promoting their movie acquisitions. Sure they have ‘Popular Now’ and ‘New Releases’ sections on their site and their app, but those don’t seem to be particularly well curated. When a big, buzz-worthy movie is available (or going to be available in a month) on HBO or Redbox, they make sure their consumers know it. Netflix seems to hide away some of their best movies like a trendy nightclub on a back alley in L.A.

So I’m not surprised that CNN and EW.com have taken to publishing lists of all of Netflix’s new releases at the beginning of each month. Some would say that’s too much of an ‘advertorial.’ I say it’s a needed service. With that being said, I want to offer my own list of three movies that I recently watched on Netflix and enjoyed. Perhaps you would enjoy them too.

chefChef (2014)
In 1996, actor/writer Jon Favreau used the 90s’ retro swing dancing craze as the backdrop to his story about twenty-something single guys living in L.A. With Chef, he’s focusing on a new trend and a new phase of adulthood. This decade’s trend: foodies / food trucks. The phase of adulthood: fatherhood. Nearly twenty years have passed, and it’s interesting to compare the cultural and technological differences between both films. In Swingers, Favreau’s character famously struggles with a prospective date’s answering machine. (Remember answering machines?) In Chef, the protagonist runs into disaster when he experiments with an innovation from this decade: Twitter.

Chef is mostly about a man struggling to balance his desire to be a good father with his need for professional and creative fulfillment. The pace and story is self-assuredly low-key, interspersed with lots of surprising co-stars (Robert Downey, Jr., Dustin Hoffman, Scarlet Johansson) and lively montages of mouth-watering food. Do not watch this movie on an empty stomach!

perfumePerfume: The Story of a Murderer (2007)
This movie, based on a 2001 novel by Patrick Suskind, reminded me of the grimily wonderful work of Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). Perfume is about a man who suffers through an impoverished childhood among the most horrid smells that 18th-century France has to offer. Facetious spoiler alert: this was a pretty odious period in man’s history. Another facetious spoiler alert—or maybe you have gleaned this from the movie’s title: the man becomes a serial killer. He’s obsessed with distilling a perfect scent from the essences of the beautiful women he kills. Our anti-hero stumbles into great success working with the proprietor of a fine perfume shop (played by Dustin Hoffman) and soon his olfactory obsessions create a sensation among the upper echelons of French society.

howilivenowHow I Live Now (2013)
This film is also based on a book, a YA novel written by Meg Rosoff in 2006. A high-strung American teenager named Daisy arrives at her cousins’ bucolic English country house just as World War 3 breaks out. For the first act of the movie, Daisy is fixated on the typical social concerns of a teenager, on a new crush, and on a nearly unhealthy obsession with hygiene. We follow her perspective (which rarely rises above navel-gazing), so we only see vague hints of the coming calamity.

Daisy is frolicking in the forest with her new friends when they hear the distant rumble of a massive explosion, Then they are standing in an eerily beautiful snow flurry of gray ash. The teens naively decide they’ll be safe on their idyllic, isolated estate, and Daisy and her beau keep up their love affair despite signs of carnage in the distance. But soon they are all swept up by the tides of war. The last half of the movie turns quite brutal. I have to give the movie props for never making Daisy into a super-likable, wholly heroic character. Daisy does not outgrow her ‘personality flaws’ (her obsessive compulsive nature, her nearly anorexic focus on willpower, her puppy-love idealism). Instead, these ‘flaws’ become the source of her strength as she fights to reunite and save her cousins. But if you’re the type of viewer who like your YA heroines to be more like Katniss Everdeen, Daisy might leave you feeling cold.

See the difference?

See the difference?

One minor frustration with the movie: the causes and factions of the war are never revealed. At the end this is explained as part of the point. We can’t ask the world to make sense. Still, in these times of ISIS recruits and Russian expansion spreading across sovereign borders, it would have been nice to have a better idea of who’s causing all these atrocities. Still, I thought it was a very harrowing and haunting film.

How about you? Seen any great movies/shows on Netflix lately?